Suttree is either a descent into hell or romp through the Garden of Eden–I can’t seem to make up mind as to which it is. It all hinges on the interpretation of Cornelius Suttree, a river rat whose edenic paradise (or lecherous underworld) is the concrete environs of Knoxville, Tennessee. Knoxville is host to a bevy of urchins. From Ab Jones, a whiskey distiller with a penchant for scuffling with law enforcement, to weird Leonard, a supposed catamite who has neglected to bury his dead father so as to not lose the extra welfare money, Suttree rubs elbows with them all. Chief among them is his former workhouse mate, Gene Harrogate. Known as the “moonlight melonmounter” and “the city mouse” for reasons made painfully evident in the book, Harrogate is dimwit, a good natured dimwit but a dimwit nonetheless. Suttree becomes somewhat of a surrogate father to him, teaching him the ways of the city and looking out for him when his circumstances become dire. Suttree, though, is of them. While his detached perspective and noticeable intelligence sets him a part from urchin population, they are, without a doubt, his epicurean comrades, his merry gang of fellow sinners –after all, what good is debauching yourself if you have to do it alone? Through the eyes of Sutree–or really his liver–McCathy pulls back the curtain on Appalachia’s largest metropolis, revealing the sadness, destitution, and resignation of its subterranean class.
Even though the story follows Suttree’s seemingly aimless meanderings, not much is revealed about him. The reader learns that he is educated, more than likely at Knoxville’s own University of Tennessee, that he had a failed marriage, and that he has eschewed his family, a family, one can only assume, of some privilege. But as to why or how, McCarthy doesn’t budge.
On one hand, Suttree seems to enjoy the life he has made for himself. He catches fish for the market and lives in a ramshackle houseboat on the river’s edge. He lives below life’s law and order, shunning any responsibility and showing no desire to find a steady, “normal” job. If Knoxville is paradise, then the fruits of his societal rejection are his alcohol induced romps, which often leave him unconscious or in the arms of a prostitute. If Suttree is interpreted to be someone running away from the restraints of society, arguably a noble endeavor, Knoxville becomes not a place full of pitfalls but a place where his disavowal of the world, or his old life, can materialize. The city, its urchins, and his wanderings, therefore, are not signs of any moral failings as some of the characters insist. Rather they are rituals by which he can project his inner code, putting his repudiation of the world into motion.
But thats too easy. Someone doesn’t bring themselves to hallucination, once from malnutrition, another time from trauma, and from drugs and illness a third and fourth time respectively, all because he searching for himself or rejecting the world. Something else has to be going on, right? Is he not a troubled man? Despite his his friends and their bacchanalian ways, he is alone in the world. His only intimate relationship is with the ragpicker, a hermit who wishes death would go ahead and remove him from the earth. Of his two love interests, neither last. The Suttree who is perpetually battling his demons is not the same Suttree who lives in edenic Knoxville. No. To that Sutree, Knoxville is hell. It embodies the very chaos, anarchy, and destitution he can’t seem to wrestle himself free of. It becomes not a city that he has rejected but a city that has rejected him, forcing him to roam about its perilous underworld.
In truth, Suttree probably falls in between those two interpretations, borrowing a bit of both. In rejecting the law and order of life and its various man made systems, Knoxville is in some ways an edenic paradise, but in rejection comes alienation and alienation begets suffering. In perhaps the book’s most salient passage, he reveals that he has nothing to repent of, indicating an assuredness of his ways. His rejection it seems was self imposed. But he goes on to explain that the “last and first suffer equally.” His choice of language connects his fatalism to Matthew 19 and 20, both of which employ the same trop of the “last” and the “first.” The passage explains that both Jew and Gentile will be welcomed to a post-acopalyptic feast once Judgement arrives. Suttree, though, inverts the passage, suggesting that both Jew and Gentile, first and last, urchin or non are all destined for the same miserable fate. In the end, Suttree leaves Knoxville–his destination unknown. Perhaps he has had a moment of salvation, leaving his past vices behind? Or maybe he just on to the next stop, a new city with new faces who all share in his suffering? Like the other questions posed here, the answer, very much your answer, determines what the book is about.
To quote Jerome Charyn, Suttree is a “fat one.” Characters come and go, and Suttree roams from location to location. For someone who doesn’t know Knoxville, keeping track could be challenging. Thankfully, Wes Morgan, a Psych professor at UT-Knoxville, has put together website called Searching for Suttree that features a map of Knoxville circa 1950s and photographs of some of the more notable locations in the book. He was also nice enough to label the map, showing where each picture would be.